St Andrews is the home of golf and this is the 29th time the Old Course has hosted The Open Championship. The layout is steeped in history and the holes are recognisable to golf fans all over the world, but is it any good?
With it’s double greens, crossovers, shared fairways and enormous bunkers, the Old Course is undeniably unique. If a modern golf course architect went to a client with a plan resembling the Old Course, their contract would probably be terminated. The Old is a course that has evolved rather than been designed and, as a result, it’s unlike any other venue. Every pro wants to win The Open at St Andrews; it’s a badge of honour. But if you took the course away from the town, put it on a remote stretch of coastline somewhere else in the east of Scotland, would it still be revered as one of the great courses?
As we watch the early play on day one at St Andrews, the players are making The Old look a bit of a pushover. They are taking advantage of the benign conditions and soft surfaces to post some impressive figures. The birdie-fest begs another question; without wind, is The Old Course sufficiently testing to host the game’s greatest championship?
The Old Course is definitely a more forgiving track than, say, Carnoustie or Birkdale. If you play left from the tee, there’s no real rough to speak of and the bunkers, although penalising if found, are relatively easy to avoid if a strategic approach is taken. The greens are vast and, if a player is putting well from long range, they should be able to negotiate the track without too much trouble. But it’s the subtleties that will separate the great scores from the good, finding the right sides of slopes, reaching the correct sections of the greens and missing the run-offs. If a player does this well, they can go low but, if they’re just off, they can be made to look foolish.
If we start at the beginning, the 1st tee shot is to the widest fairway in world golf – It provides quite a spectacle as the players drive off in front of the iconic sandstone clubhouse, but for the world’s best, it’s hardly a testing opener is it? Maybe ask Ian Baker Finch. The seeming simplicity of the first drive is, in itself, a psychological challenge.
The front nine then presents a series of birdie opportunities, as does the loop at the turn. The holes on the way out won’t challenge the top players unless the wind blows ferociously or they make some serious blunders.
It’s not really until the run for home that The Old shows her teeth. The testing 13th where there seems to be no fairway to aim at from the tee, the par-5 14th with gaping “Hell” protecting the approach, then the “infamous” Road Hole 17th which has traditionally ranked as one of the toughest holes in Major championship golf. The players will try to hold on to the score they’ve built as they make their way down the stretch before, possibly, picking one up at the, ostensibly, straightforward 18th.
If you look at the holes individually and out of context, The Old possibly isn’t the greatest track in the world. But why would you do that? The Old Course is one of the world’s great sporting arenas, a stage over which many epic dramas have been played out. The front nine allows the tension to build as the protagonists position themselves for the challenges to come. The pressure will begin to tell as the difficulty ramps up from the wonderful par-3 11th and onwards. Some will fall and others will stand tall over the fabulous back nine.
This is a course that will witness a high number of birdies and eagles, but there’s also the possibility of disaster on almost every hole. That means it’s exciting and unpredictable. It’s great to see the world’s top players going low when the conditions allow, it’s also great to see them struggle when the conditions turn for the worse. The Old Course allows for both these things to happen. Think about Rory in 2010 – A superb 63 in round one where he took the Old Course to pieces, then a disastrous 80 in round two. The holes stayed the same but a change in conditions made the test completely different. Every day on the Old Course is different and that’s what makes it so special.